New mining regs slip into rulebooks

Revised BLM regulations punch a hole in the 1872 Mining Law


For Alan Septoff, Jan. 20 was more than President George W. Bush's inauguration day. It was the day he hoped to see years of hard work pay off.

Over the past decade, Septoff and his colleagues at the Washington D.C.-based Mineral Policy Center have been pushing for reform of federal hard-rock mining law. The Center found a sympathetic ear in former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, but they were up against one of the Old West's sacred cows - the 1872 General Mining Act, which says that mining is the "highest and best use" of federal lands.

During Babbitt's first four years, reformers hoping to repeal the law ran squarely into the opposition of nine Western governors and powerful Western senators.

After all attempts at legislative reform failed, Babbitt took a new tack. Starting in 1997, he launched an effort to strengthen the Bureau of Land Management's one administrative tool for regulating mining - the 3809 regulations. The vague rules, first created in 1981, directed the Interior secretary to protect public lands from "unnecessary and undue degradation" from mining.

In 1998, after another storm from the Western Governor's Association and the mining industry, Congress stalled this regulatory reform as well. Babbitt was finally able to squeeze his new rules into the Federal Register last fall, but the mining industry filed an 11th-hour lawsuit aimed at holding off the implementation of the rules until Bush could enter office.

A judge threw out the lawsuit, and in the final hours of the Clinton presidency, the BLM's new hard-rock mining policy slipped into the rulebooks. Although the new regulations don't have the glossy appeal of Clinton's roadless initiative or Babbitt's national monuments, they are no small victory for mining reformers and environmentalists. The revised rules "are perhaps one of the most significant new regulations issued by the Clinton administration," says Septoff. "This is a huge deal."

BLM gets veto power

The new 3809 regulations fall short of what reformers wanted - namely a new law that would force mining companies to pay the federal government a cut of their profits from mining on public land.

But they will make mining companies pay up, requiring bonds to cover clean-up costs. Septoff says the new bond rules will prevent future taxpayer bailouts at mines like Zortman-Landusky gold mine in Montana (HCN, 4/13/98: The Wayward West), and the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado (HCN, 1/19/98: Summitville: an expensive lesson).

"Taxpayers are currently on the hook for anywhere from $32 billion to $72 billion in abandoned mine cleanup costs," says Septoff. "These new regulations ensure that these mining companies actually pay to clean up their mine up front."

Along with new rules for bonding, the revised regulations require the BLM, or state agencies, to enforce performance standards that protect water quality and environmentally sensitive areas.

Perhaps most significantly, the new 3809 regulations give the BLM discretion to deny mining proposals. Because of the "best use" clause, BLM managers have had a tough time turning down mine proposals, even if the mine would mar views of a national park or threaten a blue-ribbon trout stream. Now, the BLM can decide that protecting wildlife habitat or scenic beauty outweighs the benefits of mining.

Nevada will fight

Opposition to the reform is certainly not over. In Nevada, where hard-rock mining is the second-largest industry in the state, the attorney general's office has already filed a lawsuit challenging the BLM's authority to implement the new rules.

"What we're trying to do here, is make sure that the state's voice is heard before important decisions about mining are made," says Wayne Howle, Nevada's assistant attorney general. "The production will decline in the range between $117 (million) and $351 million a year. That's pretty substantial," he says. "The number of jobs lost will be anywhere between 1,070 and 3,220. So there's no question that there will be adverse effects to the state's economy."

If Nevada's lawsuit, and two others like it, fail, miners and some politicians in other states hope the Bush administration will soften impacts of the rules.

"There's a new secretary of the Interior, and there are those who say she's going to be an advocate for mining," says David Cherry, spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada. "So a lot of people are taking a wait-and-see attitude to see how the mining rules pan out."

As for mining reformers, they'll be keeping a close eye on Interior Secretary Gale Norton and how she handles the first meaningful changes in hard-rock mining rules since 1981.

"It's one of the best regulatory changes on mining that has occurred in the last two decades," says Nevada mining expert Glenn Miller. "But the burden is still going to be on the people on the ground ... to enforce the new regulations."

Ali Macalady is production assistant for Radio High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Alan Septoff, Mineral Policy Center, 202/887-1872;
  • Karen Batra, National Mining Association, 202/463-2651;
  • Wayne Howle, Nevada Attorney General's Office, 775/684-1227.
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